CD Reviews - 5 Miles From Town

EH MUSIC

 

1. CD Review: http://www.elmoremagazine.com/2018/12/reviews/albums/the-ebony-hillbillies 

  by Jim Hynes

The string band Ebony Hillbillies hail from New York City and have already created quite a stir by appearing on television and hallowed venues like Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. This is their fifth recording. They are carrying on the traditions of black American string bands that extend back to bands like The Mississippi Sheiks, The Memphis Jug Band, and certainly more recently, the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Theirs is a mission to both revere tradition and leverage this legacy to offer current social commentary. 

The Ebony Hillbillies seamlessly blend pop, country, bluegrass, folk, blues and jazz organically to get feet stomping, and more importantly to shake consciences too. As such, they have become prominent at festivals, workshops, visual artist collaborations and school programs. Material here ranges from traditional fiddle jams like the opening “Hog Eyed Man” to Willie Dion’s “Wang Dang Doodle” to Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” to recent police shootings as heard on “Another Man Done Gone/Hands Up Don’t Shoot” and “I’m On My Way to Brooklyn.” There are the requisite gospel touches too both in the latter and “Where He Leads Me.” 

The seven-piece group is led by Henrique Prince (fiddle, vocals) with Norris Bennett (banjo, mountain dulcimer, guitar, vocals), Gloria Thomas Gassaway (vocals and bones), Altanah Salter (shaker, vocals), Newman Taylor Baker (washboard, percussion) and A.R. (Ali Rahman) (”cowboy” percussion). Key member acoustic bassist William “Salty Bill” Salter is a three-time Grammy winner with pop hits like “Where Is the Lord” and “Just the Two of Us.” 

Theirs is a raw, unadorned acoustic sound that could just as easily come from a front porch as a recording studio. Yet, the background vocals and ambient sounds are at times urban too. Mixing three instrumentals with mostly vocal tunes, the band shares lead vocals and varies both instrumentation and rhythmic approaches throughout. Passion burns strongly, especially on the socially conscious tunes. Yet, they display a remarkable range, taking on romantic material like the Bonnie Raitt tune, and the cautionary “Fork in the Road.”  Passion burns strongly, especially on the socially conscious tunes. 

The paradoxical fusing of the traditional sound and instruments with current issues and musical influences has a way of taking you back in time but somehow the lasting impression is remarkably contemporary. 

—Jim Hynes 

  

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2. CD Review: https://musicalmemoirs.wordpress.com/   

By Dee Dee McNeil 

  

THE EBONY HILLBILLIES –“5 MILES FROM TOWN” Independent Label 

Henrique Prince, violin/vocals;Norris Washington Bennett,banjo/mountain dulcimer/guitar/vocals;Gloria Thomas Gassaway,bones/percussion/vocals; William (Salty Bill) Salter, acoustic bass; Allanah Salter,shaker/percussion/vocals; Newman Taylor Baker,washboard percussion; A.R. (Ali Rahman or Cowboy),percussion. 

Violinist, Regina Carter first introduced me to roots of African-American Hillbilly music. As soon as the first track peeled off this CD, I was familiar with the genre. This first track is titled “Hog Eyed Man” and it’s a happy, celebratory composition. Willie Dixon is one of my favorite blues composers and blues artists. He wrote the next song this ensemble performs titled, “Wang Dang Doodle”. The Ebony Hillbillies make me feel comfortable and happy, like I’m at a family gathering. The string-work of this unique group revives a musical history from the past. They sound ‘country’ and Appalachian, but are actually from New York. This recording was made in Jamaica, Queens. The Ebony Hillbillies include some modern music, like Bonnie Raitt’s hit record, “I Can’t Make You Love Me”. But their arrangement is tinged with the American legacy string-band sound. This ensemble also dips into a political bag, taking up community issues with their music and documenting them in song. For example, the ongoing problem that is prevalent between policemen across America and people of color is addressed on “Another Man Done Gone/Hands Up Don’t Shoot.” 

For the most part, their outlandishly joyful music and honest interpretations of an art form rarely heard is infectious. Heralded as the premier African-American string band in America, this unique ensemble has graced the stages of Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center and made various TV appearances including on the BBC and ABC’s “Good Morning America. Led by violinists Henrique Prince, they blend bluegrass, folk songs, jazz, country blues and pop, giving each tune their own unique stamp of approval. Everything they sing is infused with African-American gospel church roots and the historic work songs of slave farmers. Their style and reflective presenta- tion are endearing and they offer listeners a freshness and honesty poured into their music that is addictive. This is their fifth group release. Others available on CD are: Sabrina’s Holiday, I Thought You Knew, Barefoot and Flying, and finally their 2015 release titled, Slappin’ A Rabbit – Live! 

 

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3. CD Review: http://jazzquad.ru/index.pl?act=PRODUCT&id=5119 

  By Leonid Auskern   

(Google Translation): 

Blues is black music, country is white music. So it was in America once. But today everything is completely different. For about fifty years (approximately), the blues has been playing, and it's playing, both white and black musicians. The same can be said about such directions as rhythm-and-blues, soul (even the term blue-eyed soul appeared) and, especially, jazz. With country music, not everything is so obvious, but this direction is not now the exclusive “hunting ground” for wheat-haired boys and girls from the Appalachian Mountains, the Midwest or Texas. And the best example of this is the work of the ensemble from New York The Ebony Hillbillies. 

This group began with street concerts at busy urban intersections and went all the way to the scenes of Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, to the studios of America's leading television corporations. The composition of the ensemble The Ebony Hillbillies is in many ways unique. This is a relic today symbiosis of exclusively string and percussion instruments. Leader of the group Enrique Prince plays the violin, Norris Bennett, in addition to guitar and banjo, also uses such a rare regional string instrument as the mountain dulcimer (it is also called the Appalachian dulcimer). And besides contrabassist William "Salti Bill" Salter, the rhythm group includes a representative percussionist team, which also has relic exotic acts, like a washboard, in its arsenal. 

And this is the composition of The Ebony Hillbillies playing music in which the blues, country, rock and pop music harmoniously coexist. At least that's how I would describe the program of the last album of the group 5 Miles From Town. Of the twelve tracks, there are two purely instrumental pieces: the starting Hog Eyed Man and the composition with the colorful and politically incorrect “southern” title I’d Rather Be A Nigga Than A Po ’White Man. Both of these pieces are traditional, old melodies arranged by The Ebony Hillbillies. Most of them are on the album. But there is authoring music also arranged for this lineup, for example, the gorgeous blues of Willie Dixon Wang Dang Doodle or I Can't Make You Love Me by Bonnie Wright. There are compositions that are considered in the spirit of classic country music (I'm On My Way To Brooklyn), there is Smoke Robinson's rhythm and blues lyric melody Fork In The Road, there are still blues (Carroll County Blues), there is a traditional African American style. workers' songs call and response composition Another Man Done Gone / Hands Up Don't Shoot, sharply social and topical (this is about the police killing often innocent people on the streets due to the fact that the cops assumed that they were dealing with armed and dangerous persons. In general, each (literally - each) track is interesting in its own way, and in combination with an unusual group sound and a high level of performance, you listen 5 Miles From Town in one breath. I highly recommend not to miss this album. 

 

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4. CD Review: https://www.jwvibe.com/single-post/2018/12/18/THE-EBONY-HILLBILLIES-5-Miles-From-Town 

By Jonathan Widran 

    

THE EBONY HILLBILLIES, 5 Miles From Town 

You first hear the raw, organic, Americana laced magic in the hoppin’ fiddle and streetcorner percussion that grabs your heart on “Hog Eyed Man,” the exuberant instrumental that launches 5 Miles  From Town - the latest full length album from string band sensations The Ebony Hillbillies. 

From there, you’ll be captivated by the part vocal/ part instrumental swirl of R&B, bluegrass, country, jazz, folk, what have you that will help you understand how this five man, two women phenomenon - renowned as “The Last String Band in America” – has taken their game from the street corners of NYC to Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the BBC and Good Morning America. 

The group is the vision of Harlem born, Queens raised violinist and vocalist Henrique Prince, who could have been a member of a symphony orchestra but decided on another path and mission. His interest in 1930s guitar-fiddle group The Mississippi Sheiks and other legendary string bands sparked his initial interest. Then he met the man who would become his partner in infectious polyrhythmic crime - banjo, mountain dulcimer, guitar and singer Norris Washington Bennett - after an audition for an NYC bluegrass band in 2004. 

The ensemble grew from there to include such multi-talented greats as Gloria Thomas Gassaway (on vocals and bones) and three time Grammy winning songwriter/bassist William “Salty Bill” Salter. Together they create a joyful noise with echoes of a fascinating past that deeply transcends racial and cultural boundaries. 

While it’s great just getting caught up in the infectious fun, the Hillbillies include a few heavier themed slices of social consciousness, including “Another Man Done Gone (Hands Up Don’t Shoot)” and “I’m on My Way To Brooklyn.” It says a lot about their originals and interpretations of traditional pieces that their cover of the familiar “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” while sultry and enjoyable, is the least essential tune on their set list.  

 

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5. CD Review: https://www.rootsmusicreport.com/reviews/view/674/album-review-of-5-miles-from-town-by-the-ebony-hillbillies 

by Duane Verh 

  

Sifting the likes of Prince and Smokey Robinson through the fabric of traditional American string band music is a more natural sounding affair than it may seem in the hands- and particularly the fingers- of this spirited NYC-spawned ensemble.  Earthy adaptations of the afore-mentioned hitmakers’ fare- “Cream” and “Fork In The Road”, respectively- appear alongside the Willie Dixon gem “Wang Dang Doodle”, the Bonnie Raitt-popularized “I Can’t Make You Love Me” and a sprinkling of traditional jams.  Particularly potent is a culturally-updated rendition of “Another Man Done Gone”, subtitled “Hands Up Don’t Shoot”.  

 

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6. CD Review: https://lemonwire.com/2018/12/14/the-ebony-hillbillies-bring-current-events-to-life-with-an-old-school-flair-on-5-miles-from-town/ 

  

The Ebony Hillbillies bring current events to life with an old-school flair on “5 Miles From Town” 

By Dodie Miller-Gould 

 

December 14, 2018 

  Touted as America’s “premier African-American string band,” The Ebony Hillbillies sound like nothing most listeners can prepare for. But, for audiences well-acquainted with string bands and blues from the 1910s and 1920s, the sound of the Ebony Hillbillies will sound hauntingly familiar. 

On their fifth CD, “5 Miles From Town,” The Ebony Hillbillies are taking on not only music forms that are roughly a century old, but they are sometimes infusing the lyrics with details from 21st century social unrest. Among the dozen songs on the album (forthcoming Jan. 4, 2019) are the blues classic “Wang Dang Doodle” and the old-school styled, “Another Man Done Gone/Hands Up Don’t Shoot,” that details the deaths of black men at the hands of the police, or some other authority, as in the case of Trayvon Martin. 

But it isn’t just blues and social commentary for the group, although some would argue that the very existence of this band is a form of social commentary. Mixed in are Gospel songs, in particular “Where He Leads Me.” 

Probably the most interesting facet of this ten-piece group from Manhattan is the adherence to using instruments from yesteryear and in the string band tradition. There is no overly electric sound. Though there is a guitar, that is the most modern instrument. Instead, there are bones, banjos, a shaker, washboard, a mountain dulcimer and violin. The singing styles that the singers use (most of the vocals are done by women but Norris Washington Bennett does help out vocally, in addition to playing stringed instruments) is decidedly vintage. This is not a recording that attempts to make older songs sound updated with the use of certain modern singing techniques. The gritty, soulful, bluesy sound of the songs has an almost indescribable effect on listeners. 

“Wang Dang Doodle” by The Ebony Hillbillies 

This version of the blues classic sounds a great deal like the version made famous by Koko Taylor, minus the electric bomp of Taylor’s rendition. The female vocals are deep and rich. The song’s lyrics are a mouthful, but the singer manages to get them all out clearly. The musicians do a more than capable job of bringing to life the rollicking up and down blues beat of the track. True to the original, this version of “Wang Dang Doodle” could also be played at parties. 

“Another Man Done Gone (Hands Up Don’t Shoot)” by The Ebony Hillbillies 

Essentially, this is the blues stripped down. The vocals are arranged in a call and response format. The lyrics never name names, but anyone who has watched the news in the past several years knows exactly who the women are singing about. For instance, “They shot him in his car (they shot him in his car),” and “he had a hoodie on (he had a hoodie on).” The lyrics speak for themselves and the rich unadorned vocals give them the gravitas needed. 

The Ebony Hillbillies started on the streets of Manhattan, but have performed at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, on “Good Morning America,” on the BBC and elsewhere. Hopefully, the group’s presence will continue to grow. Their four previous CD’s have sold thousands of copies, but the style and message of The Ebony Hillbillies need to be heard by everyone. The New York Times noted that the group’s work is a “wonderful connection to all our humanity,” and most listeners will agree. 

 

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7. CD Review: http://midwestrecord.com/MWR1461.html 

EBONY HILLBILLIES/5 Miles From Town:  How cool is this?  Carolina Chocolate Drops hook up with Gus Cannon and they all take steroids.  Down home string band music like the kind the Lomax’s used to find but with better recording techniques.  These guys just plain, freaking rock like no other.  Killer stuff for the ultimate back porch party. 

(EH) 

CHRIS SPECTOR, Editor and Publisher 

 

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8. CD Review: https://contemporaryfusionreviews.com/phenomenal-african-american-string-band-the-ebony-hillbillies-5-miles-from-town/ 

  

Phenomenal African American string band The Ebony Hillbillies – 5 Miles From Town 

Dick Metcalf, editor, Contemporary Fusion Reviews 

  

December 13, 2018 

  

Phenomenal African American string band The Ebony Hillbillies – 5 MILES FROM TOWN:  When I lived in Alabama (eons ago, it seems), “string bands” were generally associated with white guys & corn liquor at weekend-long festivals, I guess… this band sets that stereotype to be ’bout as false as false can be… you don’t have to just take my word for it, either… just watch this year-old performance from the group (not from the album) – they just ROCK: 

…there is a channel for The Ebony Hillbillies, so be sure to SUBSCRIBE to it. 

On the album, they bring their phenomenal style to brilliant life on songs like the old standard “Wang Dang Doodle” – like you’ve never heard it before, folks… fresh and full of soul! 

I can’t help but be reminded of some of those ol’ “Chicken Shack” scenes from L.A. (Lower Alabama) I used to participate in as I listen to their playing on “Carroll County Blues” – haul out that sour mash & git on DOW-un, people. 

A real cast of characters in their lineup, too…. Henrique Prince on violin & vocals; Norris Washington Bennett doing banjo, mountain dulcimer, guitar & vocals; Gloria Thomas Gassaway on bones (percussion & vocals; William (Salty Bill) Salter doing acoustic bass; Allanah Salter on shaker (percussion & vocals; Newman Taylor Baker playing washboard percussion and A.R. (Ali Rahman) doing cowboy percussion… it really all comes together on my personal favorite of the dozen songs offered up, too… “Fork In The Road” features some of the prettiest violin you’ve ever heard on the intro, and morphs right over into one of the most soul-filled pieces you’ll hear in 2018… a truly excellent piece! 

I give The Ebony Hillbillies a MOST HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, with an “EQ” (energy quotient) rating of 4.98… get more information on The Ebony Hillbillies website.     Rotcod Zzaj 

 #Phenomenal #African #American #string #band #The #Ebony #Hillbillies

 

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9. CD Review: https://rootstime.be/CD%20REVIEUW/2019/JAN1/CD106.html

 

by Eric Suurmans (Rootstime.be)

 The Hillbilly music came into being in the 1920s when country music became more commercial. The style of music was named after the illiterate and poor mountain dwellers (the "Hillbillies") who lived in the Appalachian Mountains in Tennessee. The microphone did not exist yet, so the singer sang his song as hard as possible into a recording horn, accompanied by mainly guitar and banjo, but also violin and double bass. 

This style of music had no official name and was heard by many Americans with light ridicule. They first tried to interpret this music with terms like "Old Time Songs" and "Old Familiar Tunes", until they came to Hillbilly. Some even went so far as to label this music as music for the "poor white trash". According to others, this was wrong, because according to them the musicians were very good and the music was very popular. The most famous artists from those years were the Carter Family. This group laid the foundation for what would later become the country music. 

The Ebony Hillbillies are an African-American string band, a "real phenomenon" from NYC. They have set themselves the goal of reviving this nearly lost art form in order to secure the American legacy of strings music, for a whole new generation. The regular band is led by Henrique "Rique" Prince (violin, vocals) and consists of Norris Washington Bennett (banjo, dulcimer, guitar, vocals), William "Salty Bill" Salter (standing bass), singer / percussionist Gloria Thomas Gassaway , Newman Taylor Bake (washboard), "cowboy" percussionist AR aka Ali Rahman (Reggie Ferguson) and Allanah Salter (shakers, vocals). William Salter has already won three Grammys and has participated in the legendary pop hits "Where is the Love" and "Just the Two of Us". 

The EH performed their first performances in the streets of Manhattan and have since performed at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and for the BBC, Good Morning America, NBC, CBS and several festivals. They recorded four albums since 2014: 'Sabrina's Holiday' and 'I Thought You Knew' in 2014, the live album 'Slappin' a Rabbit 'in 2015 and more recently' 5 Miles From Town '. 

At '5 Miles From Town', The Ebony Hillbillies play a mix of pop, country, bluegrass and jazz and have them on everything that has strings (violin, banjo, acoustic guitar & standing bass) and accompanying percussion (washboard, bones, shakers ... ), just about everything that makes the genre special, including the "hog", a jam in which the violin leads. How such a hog sounds, you can already hear in the opener "Hog Eyed Man" in which Henrique Prince leads the melody in an Irish-folk way on violin and to which only extra percussion is added. Willie Dixon's "Wang Dang Doodle" will be refreshed, with Gloria Thomas Gassaway's exuberant, screaming vocals striking in the vocal harmonies. "Darling Corey" is already the next classic and my lasting memory of folk musician (almost Antwerp) Derroll Adams (1925-2000). There is also the intimate Bonnie Raitt cover "I Can not Make You Love Me" and a subsequent instrumental hog "Carroll County Blues". On banjo Bennett puts "Cream / I'm On My Way to Brooklyn" that you take with you to NY and where you luckily escape three gunshots. Another feature of the songs of The EH are the comments on social states, which are in their texts. "Another Man Done Gone / Hand's Up Do not Shoot" (the BLM Version) is an example of this, in which shootings of the police, in which black men were usually the meal sacrifice, are the subject. Should there still be hogs? Yes, then there is "I'd Rather Be a Nigga Than a Po 'White Man" or, where words are missing and the title says more than enough. "Fork in the Road" is the soft, romantic story with again a message, which also applies to "Oh What a Time". This is followed by the nice sing along "Where He Leads Me (I Will Follow)" and it is still finished with the last hog. In "Five Miles From Town" (studio version), the whole gang gets one last time out of the closet. 

The Ebony Hillbillies you can not see musically as an old-fashioned rarity, but as the living proof of how authentic roots music can be. That this music must survive and never be lost must be a goal to connect people and cultures.

 

Quote:

“ You may not consider The Ebony Hillbillies musically as an old-fashioned “rarity”, but as the living proof of how authentic roots music can be. That this music must survive and never be lost, must be a goal to connect people and cultures... “  - esc for www.rootstime.be

 

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10. CD Review: https://takeeffectreviews.com/reviews-2/ - /theebonyhillbillies5milesfromtown/

 

by Tom Haugen for TAKE EFFECT

7/10

The stringed band sensations return with another album of their pop, country, bluegrass, jazz, and folk hybrid that takes on current social topics but still manages to have a good time with both traditionals and originals. 

While the album leads with the swift fiddles and percussive heavy instrumental of “Hog Eyed Man”, “Wang Dang Doodle” is a soulful, jazz meshing with plucky bass and finger snappin’ fun and leads into the quiet, folk based “Darling Corey”. 

Things only get more interesting from here, with a hushed intimate cover of “I Can’t Make You Love Me” (originally performed Bonnie Raitt), the bluegrass pickin’ of “Cream/I’m On My Way To Brooklyn (Yes Indeed)”, and the swampy blues of “Another Man Done Gone (Hands Up Don’t Shoot)”, which addresses much of the racial injustice that exists today. 

Now a decade and a half into their career, the Manhattan outfit further prove that they’re not only here to entertain, but to communicate and educate with their spirited and flourishing art. 

Travels well with: Pert Near Sandstone- Paradise Hop; The Highwoods String Band- Fire On The Mountain

 

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11. CD Review: https://cdhotlist.com/

by Rick Anderson for CD HotList: New Releases for Libraries 

Billed as “the premier African-American String Band in America,” the Ebony Hillbillies demonstrate the deep debt that white Appalachian old-time music owes to African-American blues and gospel. This debt has always been acknowledged with words, but bands like Ebony Hillbillies and the Carolina Chocolate Drops make those words flesh with musical demonstration, and create a tremendous amount of excitement in doing so. Consider, in this case, how the band segues from a rollicking rendition of the classic fiddle tune “Hog Eyed Man” into a powerful, stomping performance of the blues party classic “Wang Dang Doodle”–or how they manage to make a Bonnie Raitt cover lead in perfectly naturally to a sashaying version of “Carroll County Blues.” Also notice how some of these old-sounding songs are actually brand-new protest numbers. Listen carefully; it’s worth it, and this album is more than merely fun.

 

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12. CD Review: http://deeprootsmag.org/2019/02/12/voices-raised-in-determination-and-triumph/

 VOICES RAISED IN DETERMINATION AND TRIUMPH

BY DAVID MCGEE

 

By way of the vanished past and the tumultuous present come eight gifted artists assembled in New York City by violinist/vocalist Henrique Prince.  A modern-day extension of the black string bands of yore—Prince’s study of this tradition took him beyond the Mississippi Sheiks into the music’s obscure 19th century origins—the Ebony Hillbillies have entertained and educated adults and children alike from the streets of New York to the Smithsonian Museum, in visual artist collaborations at museums, at guest school programs and more. 

On this, its fifth CD, the group’s old-timey sound (shaped by fiddle, banjo, washboard percussion, shaker bones) evokes, on the one hand, bygone eras in the jubilant bones- and fiddle-fired title track and horrific modern-day tragedies rooted in racial animus in the grinding call-and-response blues of “Another Man Done Gone (Hands Up Don’t Shoot Me).”

 On the other hand, the mood lightens via testifying vocals and a funky, percussive arrangement of Willie Dixon’s “Wang Dang Doodle,” whereas a quiet, measured vocal and crying fiddle caress the heart’s most tender part in a rustic treatment of Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” as does the stately, penultimate benediction, “Where He Leads Me (I Will Follow).” The latter was written in the mid-1800s by E.W. Blandy in a moment of personal crisis:  A Salvation Army officer, Blandy found himself having to choose between an easy lifestyle working for an established church or a more challenging job in the violent neighborhood known as Hell’s Kitchen. He chose the latter. Sacrificing material comforts seems of a piece with the Ebony Hillbillies’ commitment to education as one of the principal components of their existence, their reason for being. The EH website mentions “voices raised in determination and triumph,” a most apt description of their sound. Listen, absorb and be moved by the commitment on multiple levels, musical and otherwise, this group demonstrates day in and day out, year in and year out.

 

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13. CD Review:  http://www.keysandchords.com/album-review-blog/the-ebony-hillbillies-5-miles-from-town 

  

The last Afro-American string band in the USA is this Ebony Hillbillies. Vocalist and violinist Henrique Prince from Harlem is the founder, and after an audition for a bluegrass band he met Norris Washington Bennett, who would become his partner. Together they started with a sound that precedes jazz, and in the meantime that band has grown into a 7 person group. In their music there are elements interwoven with pop, country, bluegrass, folk, rock and jazz. Your feet will catch on their sound of banjo, violin, percussion, washboard and their mix of instrumental and sung songs. On their fifth album opener 'Hog Eyed Man' is such a cheerful instrumental that reminds me of conwbo music. A cover of Willie Dixon's 'Wang Dang Doodle' follows, and a bit further is a cover of Bonnie Raitt's 'I Can not Make You Love Me'. On 'Another Man Done Gone (Hands up Do not Shoot)' political commentary is given on the shooting behavior of police on African-Americans. Everywhere you hear a rough, acoustic sound, which could just as well have been recorded on a veranda. If you want to go back to the roots, then this is definitely recommended for you! 

Patrick Van de Wiele (3½)

 

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14. CD Review: http://www.rambles.net/ebony_5miles19.html 

  By Jerome Clark 

  It wasn't that the Ebony Hillbillies were new to me, though they were, when I opened the package containing their current CD and experienced a certain shock. Among the discs I receive for possible review, there is no shortage of acts claiming "roots," something of a buzz word in the quarters on which my attention is focused. What startled me is that I'd not so much as heard of this group of seven African-American performers who could be something Alan Lomax recorded in the field while documenting the last of authentic Southern traditional music in the 1950s or thereabouts. Except that, more confusingly, the Hillbillies hail from New York City. 

Even more confoundingly, they appear to be working outside the usual confines of urban folk music institutionalized in the generation of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Lead Belly, who invented the occupation of "folk singer." The most famous black string band currently working, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, is connected with that history and that network. So was the trio Martin, Bogan & Armstrong popular a few decades ago, playing mostly at folk clubs and festivals and recording on folk labels. I read here that in the presumably not-recent past the Hillbillies have shared stages with Seeger, Odetta and Harry Belafonte, the first two no longer with us. 

The Hillbillies resemble a street band one might have encountered in a town or city below the Mason-Dixon line in a time when musical traditions were older and deeper than the latest radio hits. Their repertoire is what one might have heard from a jug band though -- lacking a jug -- that's not exactly what this outfit is. Still, like the classic jug bands, it communicates the sense of talented but not-all-that polished performers having a whole lot of fun pulling up songs and tunes from multiple genres. 

On 5 Miles from Town the material is represented in the deep tradition of rural dance tunes such as "Hog Eye Man" and "Carroll County Blues" (played by bandleader and fiddler Henrique Prince), the moonshiner ballad "Darling Corey," and the spiritual "Where He Leads Me." But there are also the crooning, jazz-tinged modern love songs "I Can't Make You Love Me" and "Fork in the Road." A dozen cuts in all, more than 40 minutes' worth of acoustic music and raggedy vocals that would feel as if beamed from a lost bygone but for the occasional jolting reminder that this is, after all, the 21st century. The Texas prison song "Another Man Done Gone" (first collected more than a hundred years ago by John Lomax, later the template for Big Joe Williams' blues classic "Baby, Please Don't Go") gets some tweaked lyrics inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. The brief "Oh, What a Time!" celebrates political resistance in the Trump era. 

In short, remarkable stuff, at moments cheerily playful, at others grimly sober. In their mashing of the contemporary and the antique, the Ebony Hillbillies manage to personify William Faulkner's famous adage that the past is neither dead nor past. 

 

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15. CD Review: https://michaelsmusiclog.blogspot.com/2019/02/the-ebony-hillbillies-5-miles-from-town.html

 

 BY MICHAEL DOHERTTY

On their new album, 5 Miles From Town, The Ebony Hillbillies deliver some fantastic music that encompasses elements of folk, bluegrass, blues, jazz, pop and country, presented with great abandon and joy and honesty. The group is based in New York, and certainly some of that city sensibility finds its way into music that otherwise could be expected to have originated on a porch in some southern town. The group has a good range of influences, and features both male and female lead vocalists. The band consists of Henrique Prince on violin and vocals; Norris Washington Bennett on banjo, mountain dulcimer, guitar and vocals; Gloria Thomas Gassaway on percussion and vocals; William Salter on acoustic bass; Allanah Salter on percussion and vocals; Newman Taylor Baker on washboard; and Ali Rahman on percussion. 

The album gets off to an excellent start with “Hog Eyed Man,” and I’m on board as soon as it begins. Their rendition of this tradition instrumental tune has some delicious bluegrass vibes, and features some fantastic playing, particularly on fiddle. There is nothing sluggish about this rendition; it cooks along. It’s followed by a seriously cool rendition of Willie Dixon’s “Wang Dang Doodle.” This is a song I learned as a result of being a Grateful Dead fan. I’ve heard a whole lot of other bands cover this song since those days, but I’m not sure I ever heard a rendition quite like this one. It’s glorious and raw and fun and wonderful, and it has that sense of a party that Dixon always intended. The percussion certainly contributes to that air. I love it. The group then delivers a nice take on the old folk song “Darling Corey,” with some loose percussion, which I totally dig. But it is the vocal performance that makes this one of my favorite tracks. 

The Ebony Hillbillies then go in a different direction with a gentle, engaging rendition of “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” a song written by Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin, and recorded by Bonnie Raitt. The track contains a bit of goofiness at the end (the “ZYX” part of the track). That’s followed by “Carroll County Blues,” a fun instrumental number. This version is a total delight, with a bit of banter and laughter in the background, giving it the atmosphere of a party on the porch. Things then go in yet another direction with an unusual cover of Prince’s “Cream,” done as a folk tune, the banjo being prominent. Since Prince’s death, I’ve heard several folk versions of “Kiss,” but none of this particular song before. There is something undeniably playful about this track, yet there is also an odd power to this one. As the Prince song ends, we get an a cappella delivery of “I’m On My Way To Brooklyn (Yes Indeed),” a strange segue to be sure. The track finishes with the sound effect of a gun being fired, which is jarring, but which leads directly into a rendition of “Another Man Done Gone,” here titled “Another Man Done Gone (Hands Up Don’t Shoot).” In this powerful version, the man in question isn’t chained or lynched; he gets shot in his car. It’s about police violence, and the track features an understandably angry delivery and a great raw folk sound, with a bit of a gospel feel as well. “He said he couldn’t breathe/He said he couldn’t breathe/He said he couldn’t breathe/He didn’t have a gun/He didn’t have a gun/He didn’t have a gun.” 

Then “I’d Rather Be A Nigga Than A Po’ White Man” will raise you up, get you on your feet, as this instrumental track opens with some great fiddling. Their cover of The Miracles’ “Fork In The Road” also begins with fiddle, but has a very different feel, a pretty sound. Then the tune kicks in, and has a wonderful classic rhythm and blues vibe. That’s followed by “Oh What A Time!” with lyrics addressing our nation’s recent history, with a verse about the 2008 election: “Everyone thought we had it all/It seemed our dreams had all come true/The whole wide world, they thought it too.” This one is delivered a cappella, but with an odd background sound, like it was recorded using some amateur equipment or under less than ideal conditions. We then go into gospel territory with “Where He Leads Me (I Will Follow),” presented as a combination of folk and gospel. “I can hear my savior calling/I’ll go with him, with him all the way.” This rendition has a gentle, comforting feel. The disc concludes with its title track, “Five Miles From Town,” a fun, toe-tapping, knee-slapping, partner-swinging song. This hoedown number has a cool percussion section at the end.

 

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16. CD Review: https://doobeedoobeedoo.info/2019/03/10/cd-review-the-ebony-hillbillies-5-miles-from-town/ebony-hillbillies/

 

 Review by FIONA MACTAGGART 

Artist: The Ebony Hillbillies 
Title: 5 Miles From Town 
Label: EH Music 
Genre: String Band 
Music available on: itunes, Amazon and major streaming 

This fifth and latest release from spirited septet The Ebony Hillbillies (TEH), is a corker. Renowned and beloved for their particular take on “Hillbillie” music, leader, violinist and vocalist Henrique Prince and his colleagues once again successfully juxtapose cheerful, even celebratory jazz-informed American country and bluegrass music, mostly traditional pieces rearranged by TEH, with up to the moment, in-your-face social commentary. 

The music throughout the album lightens the heart with its toe-tapping and danceable cheer, this reaching a pitch on instrumentals such as the title track, with its infectious pattering, stomping and slapping. Traditional instruments such as bones and washboard are prominent. Likewise, instrumentals “I’d Rather be A Nigga Than A Po’ White Man” and opener, “Hog-Eyed Man” with leaping violin and thumping rhythms evoke dance parties of years past. 

However, a key part of TEH’s message are the lyrics. Those on “Another Man Done Gone/Hands Up Don’t Shoot” prove almost too hard to hear, but the repetitive, call and response structure gives no possibility of missing the unfolding, horrific narrative: “They shot him in his car… He said he couldn’t breathe…  He didn’t have a gun… They shot him anyway.” 

Pulling the heart-strings in a more sentimental way are the lyrics of the lovely Bonnie Raitt song, the Scottish air-sounding “I Cann’t Make You Love Me”.Though they may have started by playing on the streets of Manhattan, TEH have in recent years appeared in such august establishments as Carnegie Hall and the Lincoln Centre, New York City. Indeed 5 Miles From Town is an album which has an urban feel, yet also sounds as though it has sprung from the countryside. Similarly, if feels simultaneously old and very much of our time. Such originality, rawness and integrity deserve to be heard and surely can only benefit those who here it.